America crazy about breadbox on wheels called Smart car

Linda Moudakas drives a Mercedes-Benz sedan with 140,000 miles on the odometer. For her next car, she's thinking of downsizing. Really downsizing.

She's in line to buy something that looks like a glorified golf cart, a car so short it can theoretically be legally parked head first along a curb. No hood. No trunk.

Behold, the Smart car.

"It's all the talk about the environment and wanting to do something," the Menlo Park, Calif., executive says as she eyes an array of Smart demonstration cars lined up here. To her, buying a Smart car with its 2008 EPA rating of about 40 miles per gallon on the highway amounts to treading lightly on Mother Earth.

Moudakas is among 30,000 people that Smart executives say have slapped down a refundable $99 for a reservation to buy one of the cars. When they appear on streets in about two months, it will be the start of what could become a new chapter in American motoring: the modern microcar.

"It turns heads wherever it goes," boasts David Schembri, president of Smart USA, a division of a megadealer that's importing the cars from automaker Daimler, which also makes Mercedes. "I tell people, 'If you want to feel like a rock star, drive this car.' "

Schembri and his crew are going to lengths to try to ensure a strong start. They are well on their way to signing up 73 initial Smart dealers across the country. They developed an elaborate test drive program that ran more than 50,000 drivers through during 50 stops around the country in the past few months. And they are selling — or more accurately, taking reservations — only through the Internet.

But before the first college fraternity can see how many students can be stuffed into one of his tiny two-seaters, Schembri faces some big challenges. After the initial flurry of sales, can buyer interest be sustained? Will well-heeled city dwellers who love the design also embrace its modest performance? Will moms and dads feel comfortable having their sons and daughters drive a tiny Smart car? And can it hold its own in a collision with a big American SUV?

Small is beautiful

A couple of automotive consultants think Americans are ready for an 8-foot, 8-inch car.

"There is a nice market for tight parking, people who want to drive something a bit different," says Michael Robinet, vice president of auto industry consultants CSM Worldwide. They will put up with the car's limitations "as long as they know this is not exactly a cross-country vehicle but an urban traveler."

With gas prices headed squarely past the $3-a-gallon mark again, "Timing couldn't be any better," says Bob Cosmai, a consultant and former CEO of Hyundai Motor America.

The Smart, which will be displayed starting later this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, isn't new — only new to most of the USA. The original idea hearkens back to the 1970s, but took off after Nicolas Hayek, who founded the Swatch wristwatch line, announced in 1989 that he wanted to bring a newfangled small car to market. The Smart name comes from combining the S from Swatch, the M from Mercedes and ART.

Production of the Smart ForTwo, as the model is known, began in Hambach, France, in 1998. Daimler flirted with the idea of bringing it to the USA from the start. In 2004, the plan was to import the four-passenger sport-utility model. A year later, Smart was restructured and nixed the small SUV, so it never got here.

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